The Last Carry

“…we sometimes need to leave water to get to other waters”.

June 30, 2017    Canoe trippers are a very small subset of humanity. As the paddling descendants of trappers and of voyagers, we self-identify as a stoic, independent, and highly skilled on the water and in the camp. Motorboats, kayaks, and SUP’s are beneath consideration. Not without blindspots, we overlook our fetish for Kevlar boats, 9 ounce stoves, and titanium forks.

As with paddlers through history, we sometimes need to leave water to get to other waters. In this situation, gear and boats are carried along paths, or over obstacles to complete this transfer. The purists prefer a single carry. Gear and boats make the traverse in a single trip. This requires a bit of fortitude, a light boat, careful packing, and a well-balanced load.

In the Adirondack Park, these carry paths are well developed. They are the linchpins connecting the great paddling routes. I faced a carry between Middle Pond and Floodwood Pond. This is a pretty average carry, about a 1/3 of a mile with short, steep embankments, a few roots, and a bit of slick mud. The water was shallow at both ends with solid, sandy footing. Ordinarily, very doable. My heart said “go”. But on the ledger of plausibility I had to note: 1. Generally, I use a cane for walks over 200 yards. 2. I can’t lift anything over my head with my left arm. 3. My boating shoes had slick soles. 4. My left leg provides little lift. 5. There was no one for miles around if things went south. But really, why the hell not? I installed the portage yoke and heaved, cursed, and willed the canoe up onto my shoulders. Loaded beyond capacity, I started up the slick muddy embankment, using exposed roots as steps. A dark realization arose like a cloud of chiggers. I expended all my strength on the up-loading. An unload, a tricky sequence of moves requiring strength and balance, all embedded in a smooth tidy sequence, was out of the question. There was no turning back, no unloading. There was certainly no way I could make the full trip.

I was officially in over my head, the wound self-inflicted. The familiar weapon was baseless optimism, encouraging forward motion in spite of data that might be called common sense. And now a desperate bail-out was needed. Finding a fern-choked widening in the trail I awkwardly flipped the boat off my shoulder. The landing was gratifyingly soft. The carry now became a drag. A sudden downpour was punishment for the mistreatment of this beautiful canoe. Why the hell not, indeed.

It is possible to forget anything while paddling a canoe. With the carry out of mind, I surged across ponds and streams. In a soft rain, miles disappeared in my wake. No one was on the water or in the campsites. No planes droned overhead, no motors sounded in the coves and harbors. When the wind arose, the water got big mid-lake. I switched course to poke-boat the still edges beneath spreading limbs. There was no real destination nor real plan. If this was a final blessing for solo-tripping, no regrets.

After hours in my paddling position, I ran up on a sandy beach. And then I discovered an inability to exit the canoe. The exertion of paddling combined with hours locked in place created soft-edged rigor-mortis. In a state of wistful bewilderment, I just rolled myself into the water.

It Started With a Question

“I’ve really mastered only a single thing in this long life…”

May 30, 2017   I was in Flagstaff with my friend Greg when he asked whether I enjoyed canoeing. I said yes, even though I had no concrete recollection of being in a canoe. Six months later we were in Mexican Hat UT, placing two fully-loaded white water canoes in the San Juan River. The sun was impossibly hot and the water spit with genuine menace. Greg seemed completely unconcerned. Once underway, we passed beneath the US 163 highway bridge, the symbolic boundary between a bail-out and five days in a deep canyon harboring no Plan B.

This was the immersion program. Five days of swift water, rapids, shoals, and eddies. I swam through Class 3 Government Rapids and experienced a revelation while bobbing along, collecting paddle and boat. Being of the water was even better than being on the water. The waves no longer menaced, the were just one part of a system.

The connection to water is elemental. The subtle power of the paddle enables incredible maneuvers and propulsion. Draws, pries, sweeps, J’s, C’s and endless combinations. Understanding the physics of water is the magic. Mastery of the paddle and knowledge of the water is the algorithm of canoeing.

There have been dozens of trips since the journey down the Juan. There have been a number of canoes as well. The Mad River Explorer did it all. The Wi-No-Nah Minnesota II is a fabulous tandem tripper. And there is the Swift Osprey.

Twenty years ago, I was in Ontario on a work trip. This trip included a non-work segment to the Algonquin Provincial Park. No real agenda – maybe some hiking and goofing around. It was cold and there were patches of early snow. I visited the Algonquin Outfitters, thinking about a new paddle.  Instead, I ended up with a new boat. The Swift factory was nearby and their Sales Manager sensed my interest in the beautiful Osprey on display. After a paddle in borrowed mittens I laid down a credit card of questionable capacity and the boat was mine. The Osprey is a spritely solo-touring boat. It is easy to trim when loaded and lives in the elusive land of fast-turning and steady tracking. The decks were cherry and the gunwales of ash. It was lovely and light. I’ve really mastered only a single thing in this long life – paddling this fine canoe.

The Osprey is still light but not as lovely. Hard use and poor storage led to the demise of deck and gunwales. She is now trimmed in aluminum and marine plywood. The gel-coat is faded and a constellation of scratches speak of hard landings and questionable lines. She has been hull down in many bodies of water. The cockpit has been awash with saltwater, freshwater, bog water, beer and coffee. And an unfortunate pint of Wild Turkey. It is a boat to love.

Cooking With Fire

“I could pull out the “big tools” for one last go-around.”

May 29, 2017   There is big heat, low heat, indirect heat. There is smoke, flame, and steam. And there is gear. Grills, griddles, ovens, skewers, burners, pans, grates. There are flame makers and flame reducers. Add in the storage for gear via hooks, cabinets, and shelving.

Over time, the idea of an outdoor kitchen has grown like a campfire being coaxed back to life. All my cooking stuff would be covered and in one spot. More cooking stuff could be acquired. New skills could be learned. (Dutch ovens, spit roasting, …).  No more fights with Allison about spatters and smells. And I could work my way through the large pile of semi-solid posts, beams, and planks out in the yard. Better yet, I could pull out the “big tools” for one last go-around. A place will be built. A place for cooking, hanging out, imagining, and experimenting. It will be a refuge and a smoky lab for some crazy-ass food.

Never Catch a Falling Knife

May 27, 2017   That was my thought as the 1½” framing chisel, sharpened to a keen edge, slipped from my left hand and headed for the concrete. Dropped objects represent the warfare between failing physiology and the brains adaption to ensure safety. I no longer employ the lizard brain, reflexibly sending my hand after the falling tool. It is now a wary brain, willing to let the chisel gouge a chunk of concrete. But is the workaround an acknowledgement or a surrender? Do I feel this is a helpful and logical adaptation or is it a view into the abyss of loss, the first step in the progression to disablement?

Keeping Shit Around is a Grand New England Tradition

Oak saplings shoot up through the moldering lumber pile. Moss is thick on prized beams. Garter snakes nest in the loamy duff that was cherry planks.  But I can envision a few things and the hands can still do some adaptive work. But first an inventory: (2) 6X6X8’ mossy pine posts. (3) 5X5X6’ pine posts, dry rotted on one side. (2) 3X5X8’ pine studs, horribly twisted. Assorted 3X3 redwood posts from Ethan’s swing set. A couple of punky pine logs, hand-peeled, no less. My thought: an outdoor kitchen and a log bridge for Dunbar Brook, a pretty stream that flows through the yard. June 22, 2017

The Tide of Reduction Floods Softly In

May 15, 2017   Carried out on its ebb are a lifetime of skills and functions. There is no more walking down steps without hand rails. (I will become a supporter of the ADA) No more rushing. No more butterfly swim stroke. (A useless bit of hubris, anyway). Thankfully, no more dancing. No keys in the front left pocket. (It would awkward to ask a stranger for an assist.) No more walking in a straight line.  (And that also means no more going out for cocktails.) Gracefulness?  There was not much to begin with. But grace? Yes, to the assimilation of grace. The outgoing tide might take away but the incoming tide can still deliver.

The Pants Go On One Leg at a Time

And then you try to figure out the other leg.

 June 15, 2017  In goes the right. Up rises the left, but wait! The left arm involuntarily lifts the pants higher. The leg has reached its limit.  Try sitting. My back hurts, my hips hurt. I can’t lean forward enough. One leg in. One leg out.

The leg has startling drops. The brain orders up a stride, I get a step. Seeking a step, I get a stutter. Instead of gliding over roots, sidewalk cracks, and drain covers the foot catches and sends me flying. I think I tripped over a shadow. The big toe is said to establish balance and agility. But the toe is connected to the foot that is connected to the leg that is connected to the damaged nerves. Balance, agility, strength and control washed out on the tide.

My canoe bobs in a foot of sun streaked water, parting a pasture of water lilies. A school of tiny Perch mill about with expectation. What is the boarding strategy? Strong leg first into the boat, weak leg as stabilizer? Then push with the boarding leg and swing the trailing leg up and over? Not going to happen. One leg in. One leg out. Fuck! Both legs out. The Perch disperse on splash-down.

Imagine writing code to automate dressing. Perhaps there a thousand lines to command your foot into the open waist band, while make micro adjustments, jiggling the clothing with your hand, balancing on your other leg, bending your trunk upward, pulling and adjusting, (now with both hands) A thousand lines of code, with a couple lines awry. It is just broken code. With no developer to install a patch.

Perhaps a kilt.

Hands to Work

My hands were tools. They opened jars that couldn’t be opened. They constructed and tore apart. They created fine works and scrawling wrecks. They fixed cars. Carved dovetails. Caressed babies. They raised barns and laid pipe. They guided J-strokes and brush strokes. They opened gifts, wrapped gifts, and crafted gifts. They have been frost bit, snake bit, and spider bit. And they were also a team, harmonious and fluid. Strong like a black smith, savvy like a surgeon. And now the left hand is done. It is Simon without Garfunkel, different possibilities but lost music.  And no reunion tour.

Vermont. Bikes. Rain. Adapt.

There is a moment called “go/no-go”. Fifteen minutes from home, in a cold pouring rain, I analyze the incoming weather data: 60% chance of rain Wednesday (tomorrow) with a high of 60. We could choose to view this forecast pessimistically and wait another day. Or we could ignore how wet clothing and gear feels with a high temperature of 60. We opted for wet, cold, and wind.

This journey requires a level of effort that verges on suffering. But it doesn’t require suffering that seeps into foolishness. After a jittery night of cold rain, followed by a dour forecast, options are reviewed. And it is Vermont, the land of options.

This journey started in Vermont because it is as much state of mind as state of place. There is a reassuring continuity. I am always struck by the unchanging village centers and the impossible pastoral green. Disheveled farm buildings represent a timeless utility. Even the cows speak to stubborn allegiances. Holstein or Guernsey? (The fancy breeds like Belted Herefords speak of newcomers. The easygoing tension between the locals and natives is also part of the allure) And the names are local. It is hard to find a Target, an Olive Garden, a CVS.  Each village has a general store. You buy gas at a place where they will fix your car. The cafes are small, usually announced by signage in need of some paint. Still damp and chilled, we found such a place In Wardsboro. Breakfast was fine, pancakes loaded with wild berries and a pint of Vt. maple. While getting to know the owner and other diners, we fork-feed our leftovers to a strapping Chocolate Lab. Definitely a Vermont scene.

We set our new course for the Northeast Kingdom. If Vermont is a state of mind, the kingdom is a place of myth. It is also home to the Kingdom Trails. This is a mountain bike destination where over fifty land-owners found some common ground and opened their land to an extraordinary set of trail builders. The result is called “flow” by the cognoscenti. I called it “too easy,” until I first rode it. The rocks, roots, ledgy drops, and bog tracts of NH are absent. You just ride, swoop, climb, laugh. I get it, you flow. It is a dance with the land.

The village of East Burke is built on Mountain Biking. Like a tribe, we gather, feeding a well-adapted economy. And the locals are focused and organized. They support the businesses of others and plan continually to expand the offering. There is a sense of welcome, you are part of a shared experience. On our trip north, we managed to gather some cellular signal and called ahead for lodging at the…. It was the off-season and we were the only guests. We settled in on the front patio, staring off to Burke Mt. Instead of dinner out we snacked on lunch leftovers from the Warren General Store and sipped Heady Toppers. The Inn Manager let us know that she was going home, telling us to “just text if you need anything”. This magnificent place was all ours. No concerns, no worries. Yeah, this is Vermont. And I certainly have no regrets. But I do have to hit some single track in the morning. It has been a while.

“It’s just like riding a bike” – There lives a concept that something ingrained in our neuro system becomes impossible to forget.  This idea is buttressed by human biology. A physical act, done repeatedly, encourages a thickening of the Maylene Sheath surrounding our nerves. The act becomes repeatable without conscious thought. Motor Neuron disease is an auto-immune condition where the Maylene Sheath is under attack. The disease works against strength-building and skill retention. The nerve and muscle enter an uneasy stand-off. I imagine a bad relationship. Messages sent with collaborative intent, but gone horribly awry.

With uncertainty, I throw my leg over my bike and I’m eight again. It is the same make or break moment, unsure whether I’m heading down the lane or down to earth. Once underway, there is the intramural battle between the right leg, doing most of the work, and the left leg along for the ride. It is like a kid’s squabble: “Hey you’re not doing any of the work”; “Yeah, you’re lucky I’m even here…” But riding is still a relative strength. Guile offsets weakness, a bit of grit faces down instability, a lifetime of stored memory keep the pedals turning.

Out on the trail the brain sends messages in reaction to every ledge, root, hanging limb, too-narrow bridge, and sharp rise. The messaging takes an erratic course. To accommodate, I slow down. This leads to loss of stability and crashes. The concept of flow disappears. Speeding up means loss of control. And more crashes. I’ve always found the Black Diamond ratings to be inflated. Now I find them scary. I consult the map and choose easier trails. And I am flowing. It might be like the maple syrup on yesterday’s pancake. But fuck it, I am laughing my ass off up in the Kingdom, rolling single-track. Bruised, but no regrets. June 6, 017

Making Ready

…making the “thing” larger and slightly more hazardous than it really is

March 7, 2017    The doing of the thing and the preparing for the thing live on the same scale of gratification. Any adventure, no matter how small, suggests a sense of conquest. And at the bottom end of the conquest scale there is apprehension. It is that small fear that ignites a drive to prepare. Men of a certain vintage (call us the Swiss Army Knife generation) are capable of making the “thing” larger and slightly more hazardous than it really is. And we overthink. I bring a Jet Boil stove. And a spare canister. But what if the stove malfunctions? I bring a stick stove, just in case. But wait, what if it is raining? Perhaps some dry kindling is needed. The butane lighter is backed up with matches. And sticks can be tough to crack. Perhaps a small saw should come along. And this thinking is applied to shelter, bike parts, and consumables. Up and down this scale we go. I think of Champlain, Bridger, Carson, Shackleton. A sense of order is restored. The back-ups and the back-ups for the back-ups are unloaded. But damn it, my 6” Swedish knife always makes the final list.

The internet is seductive. Blogs are read, maps downloaded, weather data scanned, products reviewed, prices compared, stuff purchased, purchases tracked and finally received. Some purchases are even hidden. And then comes packing, repacking, buying more packs. And accessorizing the packs with pockets, straps, and clips. But order is made, weight is distributed, and all is judged ready. All the shit is now unpacked while the weeks, or months, pass and the journey commences.

Meanwhile, the maps come out. Maps are ingrained into the ritual as much as much as sleeping bags and titanium spoons. They create distractions and tell stories. In their anachronistic way, they suggest history, alert to difficulties, suggest pacing, and identify resupply. Most of all they are reassuring. A compass, some line of sight, and a few deep breathes and your location on earth is secured.

Maps are paper. They are folded, rolled, copied, cropped, marked up and laminated. GPS has its place, but not on my journey. They require batteries and some chancy alignment with satellites and cellular towers. And they might talk to you, telling you when to turn, how to pace, when you are arriving, how much you have climbed, and when to seat, stand, crap, and eat. They are the overlords of your handlebars. Things you sought to leave are right there with you. And really, knowing exactly where you are at all times speaks to a misguided mastery. If there is no lost there is no reverie. GPS is the biggest hype since Gore-Tex.

Speaking of Gore-Tex, there is none. Nor Lycra, for Pete’s sake. I don’t care to look like a bobbing bratwurst, advertising products I’ll never use. Baggy shorts, loose fitting shirts, Five-Tennie’s, wool sweater, wool beanie, wool socks, gnarly wool tights (loose fit), old school rain gear. And that’s a wrap, the body is covered. More thought goes into coffee.